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Hume’s Warbler at Kergord – the first for mainland Shetland

Posted by Roger Riddington on Sunday 11th December 2011 | Birding in Shetland

Sometimes, teamwork is the key aspect of finding a rare bird. And, even though I was birding on my own on Tuesday 8th November 2011, a key reason for me finding a Hume’s Warbler was down to the input of Will Miles.

Will had been staying with us the previous evening, when he had teed up a lift to go and look for the Pine Bunting in Unst. That involved him being picked up from our house in south mainland Shetland at a quarter to seven in the morning. So he was up a bit earlier than that and I was woken soon after 6.00 am that morning by his elephantine clomping at the other end of the house. Unable to go back to sleep, I got up and went to the office. The previous night, the internet had been down and this morning there was no change. Damn… That was it, enough of an excuse to go birding instead, at least for a couple of hours.

Will had a hand here too. The previous day he’d had good views of the Treecreeper at Kergord. Having seen only one Treecreeper before in Shetland, the bird on Fetlar in 2006, I was keen to go and look at another nominate familiaris. I arrived at Kergord about 8.00 on a gloomy, grey and breezy morning. After about 20 minutes wandering slowly around the main plantation, I had seen no sign of the Treecreeper (and nor did I) – but an unfamiliar call immediately had me on edge. The bird – it was surely a small passerine – was staying high in the treetops, but the call was distinctive, and although not immediately familiar I was sure I’d heard it somewhere before. My initial thought was Pallas’s Warbler, but after the second or third batch of calls, I began to believe that it was more likely a Hume’s.

Two hours later, I reckoned I’d heard 60 or 70 calls, but I’d barely seen the bird at all! It was a Goldcrest-sized passerine, and I was reasonably sure that it was a wing-barred phyllosc, but that was about it. I also needed to check the call. Back in the car, the ipod battery was as flat as a pancake and my Hannu Jannes CD was back at home. Damn… The field-guide transcriptions of the call of Hume’s sounded good, but I wasn’t convinced I had quite enough on it to be sure. Weighing up the options, I decided to go back home and check.

Having listened to some recordings back in the office, I was now fully convinced – now I just wanted to go back and SEE the bird! I headed north again, with half an hour’s charge in the ipod, and was soon back at Kergord, back in the areas that the bird had favoured. The wind had freshened a touch and it was cold. I played the tape but there was no response – the scent seemed to have gone cold. I was still debating in my head whether to text out the news when I heard it call again, just southwest of the big house. I moved towards the sound, whereupon it fell silent again. This time though, when I played the tape I was suddenly aware of the bird in a bush right in front of me, within 10 m of the ground! The first time in all that time that I had seen it out of the treetops! For a minute or two I had really good views, and there was absolutely no doubt now, it was definitely a Hume’s Warbler! Like a Yellow-browed seen through a fug of cigarette smoke, a dingy little phyllosc but a great bird to find. Thanks Will!

Roger Riddington

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Remarkably the following week another four arrived in Shetland including this bird (another one for the team) found by Gary Bell at Grutness, Sumburgh. These records represent only the third year the species has ever been recorded in Shetland, with the last being in 2008.